Dr. Free-Ride recently wrote a post about animal research and the dialogue between those who perform it and those who object to it. This is a generalizable problem, not only between scientists and lay persons, but between any two distinct groups who are legitimately trying to communicate with each other. The problem is severely exacerbated when the two groups have different cognitive processes, which is why wrangling between scientists and theologians or two different political partisans is so common.
The general problem is that the two sides are literally talking past each other, since they have no shared context in which to establish a meaningful framework. Moreover, since these discussions often result in fundamental challenges to models of the world, there is a huge disincentive for either side to work at establishing that shared context. So it’s not really a dialogue at all, it’s just a conflict.
I’ll take the easy example of the conflict between “pro-life” vs. “pro-choice” in the United States. Fundamentally, this conflict is broken at the root; it cannot even be properly considered a debate. Neither side (for the most part) is interested in even establishing ground rules. This is pretty obvious just by looking at the labels the two sides have chosen for themselves – who isn’t for choice? Who isn’t for life? Just about everyone who isn’t a raving psychotic regards these two things as generally nice things, and yet to involve yourself in the conflict you must, by definition, take up a position that is antithetical to one of those nice things. If you accept the position of “pro-life”, by the foundational principles of the opposing team, you’re now “anti-choice”. If you accept the position of “pro-choice”, by the foundational principles of the opposing team, you’re now “anti-life”.
This is patently ridiculous, I don’t know anyone who is “pro-choice” who actually goes around killing random living things in an attempt to eliminate all life, and I don’t know anyone who is “pro-life” who wants to put a computer chip in everyone’s brain to enforce Absolute Compliance with The True Way. Interestingly, however, I know plenty of people on both sides of the debate who actually consider all of their opponents to be exactly like that.
This is a perfect example of where effective rhetorical techniques have been used to actually attack and destroy the capability of reasoned dialogue. Decades of spin have actually worked at removing shared context between these two sides. The people who feel most strongly about the conflict have a vested interest in forcing undecideds in the middle to come on board their bandwagon. At the beginning, framing your position to make it attractive to the center gets people on board with your program. After time, however, when the middle is carved up, it is no longer about attracting new people who might be persuaded to think the way you do, it’s now about destroying the opposition.
The unfortunate result is that a fairly complicated issue is now reduced to a steaming pile of platitudes that have literally less than no meaning. Look at the political comment threads on a social news site like Digg or Reddit and you’ll get a nice view of several different steaming piles.
This was illustrated so well in the recent Presidential debate. At one point, Senator McCain actually used “sarcasm tongs” when using the phrase, “health of the mother”. Why would he do this?
Well, to the “pro-choice” crowd, the “health of the mother” is a very, very important point in their foundational view of the conflict. Their reasoning is that people should never be legally forced to put themselves in a situation that can be sufficiently dangerous to their own existence. Seems reasonable. To the “pro-life” crowd, however, the “health of the mother” isn’t about the health of the mother at all; to them, this phrase has been re-contextualized by “pro-life” leaders to mean “liberal doctors get to decide arbitrarily that the fetus can be killed, because it can always be rationalized as being for the health of the mother.”
On the flip side, the pro-choice movement generally regards any attempt to limit abortion accessibility as fundamentally wrong, as it could be abused to force a woman to give birth against her will. Outright banning of second-term abortions, or banning of particular procedures is no longer a question of allowing a viable fetus to be removed and supported on its own or the merit of the procedure, it’s “chipping away at abortion rights.” Inside the pro-choice movement, it’s fairly difficult to discuss nuance in cases; is it morally wrong to abort a second term fetus that may be able to survive on its own if the conception was the result of rape and the mother is not at risk? That’s a legitimate question, but it requires people to examine what it means to be a mother, to be a person, and inherited guilt… all of which are very difficult metaphysical questions. If there is a reasoned debate inside the pro-choice community about when and where it is appropriate for society to judge the source of the pregnancy as being relevant to the decision that the mother should be able to make, it first requires the pro-choice community to admit that society has some right to influence that decision, which opens the door to the possibility that society may impose a tyranny, and that can’t be considered.
The core issue here is a lack of trust. Since the two sides of the conflict have steadily eroded the shared context between the two groups while strengthening the shared context inside its own community, each side can now easily (albeit erroneously) rationalize anything the other camp says as being completely untrue; neither side is willing to concede that any proposition put forth by the opposing side has any grain of truth to it. Are there doctors who will perform an abortion for reasons other than saving the life of the pregnant woman? Certainly; this must be true. Does this mean that every abortion performed for the “health of the woman” is performed for absolutely trivial reasons? No; of course not. However, for either side to admit that these things are true undermines their foundational positions, and thus must be ridiculed as unlikely or impossible or irrelevant rather than accepted for the truth that it is.
Rhetoric can be the mortal enemy of reasoned debate; misused, it destroys shared context with the people that do not think like you do, and strengthens the contextual bonds with people that do think like you. It allows two sides to load the same phrase with diametrically opposed connotations, which further obfuscates the ability of people to communicate clearly with each other.
Tangent – this is why people like PZ Meyers bug me; because they are making no attempt to find any sort of common ground with anyone except people that already agree with them, and they make no attempt to present their positions in a way that fosters trust with those that disagree – indeed, they go out of their way to destroy the possibility of trust with those that disagree. It is impossible to foster reasoned dialogue with someone if they have no reason to trust you, and it is impossible to actually end a conflict with anything other than violence without using a reasoned dialogue and a healthy debate.
Unless you just wait for the other side to die of old age. Sometimes, the issue you’re debating is one that requires a bit more in the way of timely resolution, however.